I missed Gone Baby Gone last year, which is a bummer, because in a ridiculously awesome year for movies, it would have been my #8 or 9 on the list. I’m sure that whole “based on a Dennis Lehane novel” thing helped, but since when does Ben Affleck kick ass? Casey Affleck is constant goodness, so perhaps it was an oversight to think his brother just lacked all talent, too. Gone Baby Gone had a few too many “Hey, remember what happened 20 minutes ago?”-style flashbacks, but mostly it was a tense, dark suspense piece with the kind of gray moral sensibility that tends to make the genre great.

As I was being pounded into my couch by a stomach-churning flu this weekend, I dug out The Matrix Reloaded, hoping a whole lot of cinematic beatdowns would take my mind off the viral one I was going through. A moderate success–there is a whole lot of ass-whomping in Reloaded, and five years after it came out, it still looks stunning.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the trilogy–the first one’s basically pitch-perfect, and even in the third one, the robots have souls–but watching it this time, I give it a thumbs-up for expanding its universe and throwing both Morpheus and Neo into doubt, but a big thumbs-down for spending the bulk of its time on plotlines that feel completely arbitrary.

Machines burrowing their way towards Zion to kill all humans? Good times. Now that’s some stakes. All that scene-wasting BS with city councillors, fifth-rate sidekicks, and characters who weren’t even in the first movie? Boooooo. Then there’s Neo’s storyline: talk to the Oracle to figure out what to do, then go talk to and beat up the Merovingian so he can get the Keymaker, then take the Keymaker to the Source and.. fix it all up then, yeah, fix it up!

It makes sense, but it doesn’t have that same sense of internal cohesion the first movie did. The action scenes have me drowning in my own drool, and there are some legitimately cool twists, but mostly, it’s a lot of MacGuffiny foolishness on the way to a cliffhanger ending.

The Wachowskis and The Matrix, David Twohy and Pitch Black, most recently, Neil Marshall and The Descent: these are some of the best fucking genre movies I’ve ever seen, yet the project after their breakout movie is always a big, crazy mess. A fun mess, usually with personality oozing all over the place, but it’s like they all ended up wanting to tell stories so big they sacrificed control for epic sweep.

I’d rather watch these guys flail than watch a bland director execute his lack of vision well. But you can’t make a movie as good as The Matrix by accident; surely these guys can find the same success that made their beloved breakouts so belovable. Let’s break it down, gentlemen! Maybe if you try going back to working on a smaller canvas, you’ll resist the urge to splash so much damn paint around.

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